There are several important things to say about the surprising, runaway division-leading Texas Rangers. The first thing we should say is that they might not actually be this good, or even close. They climbed to 45-25 on Sunday, but their run differential suggests they should have five wins fewer, and their second- and third-order winning percentages only push them further down. Their true talent level is not that of a 104-win team, or even a 94-win team. The Mariners trail Texas by 8.5 games in the standings, but are probably a better team.
Another thing to say about the Rangers: they’re outperforming their projections right now. Elvis Andrus has a .268 True Average this year, which is not only the highest of his career, but also outpaces his career TAv by over 20 points. It’s not exactly stunning, since Andrus is only 27 (yes, really, still), but there wasn’t much reason to expect this kind of breakout. His performance so far roughly matches PECOTA’s 80th percentile preseason projection for him. PECOTA projected Ryan Rua for a .260 TAv prior to this season, but with his .292 in 152 plate appearances so far, Rua has dragged the system’s esteem of him up to a rest-of-season projection of .265. Nomar Mazara was an elite prospect entering this season, but no one exactly foresaw him getting a serious opportunity this soon. PECOTA mostly matched him to players who didn’t play (or played sparingly) at age 21, and projected a .240 TAv if Mazara did see substantial playing time. Instead, Mazara is raking to the tune of a .283 TAv in a full-time role.
For my money, though, the most important thing to say about the Rangers is that their best player is Ian Desmond, whom they got for $8 million on a one-year deal on February 29. One could argue that that simply feeds the narrative (implicit within the observation of the gap between their actual record and their true talent indicators) that the Rangers have gotten lucky this year. One could also argue that it goes on the top of the pile of instances of Rangers players outpacing their projections, since Desmond has already nearly matched the 2.6 WARP for which PECOTA projected him before the season, and since his current .296 TAv would be the best of his career. I’m more inclined to focus on another element (and perhaps a tired one, but it’s important) of the story: the fact that we don’t have a clear idea of what relationship Desmond’s contract terms with the Rangers has with his actual market value.
It seems safe to assume that there’s some gap between what Desmond signed for and what he was really worth. The Nationals extended a qualifying offer to him last November, so he always had the loss of a Draft pick hanging around his neck when he and his agent went into negotiations with interested teams. Someone would have bet more on Desmond, and done it sooner, if it weren’t for his non-monetary cost.
The real crime here is that we don’t know whether the Rangers would have been that team, and we don’t know what they (or some other team) would have ended up paying to get the deal done. Desmond’s free agency was a fascinating case: a former star shortstop often beset by strikeout issues, but suddenly drowning in them. Desmond’s power degraded last season, and he had some fielding issues that made teams hesitant to approach him as a true shortstop. Yet, he could still play the position, was still a good baserunner and solid athlete, and still had average or better pop. He was only 29. If ever a player carried within him a wide range of possible outcomes, and so the potential for a wide range of valuations by various teams, it was Desmond. Yet, because of the Draft compensation issue hanging over him, the upside of Desmond went mostly unexplored, if not ignored altogether. No one wanted to gamble a draft pick on a player who had the potential to fail, even though Desmond’s track record (and even his second half in 2015) suggested utter failure was relatively unlikely.
We’re left unable to credit the Rangers with any particular acuity, though we also can’t dismiss the idea that they played the situation perfectly and pounced on an opportunity other teams allowed to slide away. We can’t say whether the market was right or wrong on Desmond, because we don’t even know what the market thought of him. We also don’t know what Desmond thought of himself. Some free agents choose certain things (comfort, proximity to home, chance to win, length of contract, the ability to hit free agency again quickly, who knows) over the most money on the longest deal available. In Desmond’s case, though, there weren’t even sufficient offers to help us discern what Desmond valued, or what he was willing to risk. Nothing so good that it might have tempted him to go another direction ever materialized. It should have. Desmond deserved that kind of broad choice, and we deserved the chance to see where things stood.
Sooner or later, this summer, the news will fill up with rumors and whispers about the negotiations on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This will be the third CBA to which I’ve paid serious attention as it was hammered out, so I know better than to think positive reforms are coming to the gameplay, Draft, or revenue-sharing aspects of the Agreement. I do, however, hold out hope that Desmond will be the last free agent to be denied a real chance to test the market and sell his services to the bidder who offers him the most attractive package. There’s nothing good about the qualifying offer system, in the context of the Draft strictures the current CBA implemented, so either the QO or those Draft strictures need to go. The second one would set a more dangerous precedent and cost the owners way more money, so while I’m rooting for that, I’m expecting, and will accept, the first one. I worry, mostly, that even that is too much to hope for.
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